When national poet laureate Mazisi Kunene passed away after a long illness last year, the country was gripped by a moment of uncertainity. As in any succession a need suddenly arose for someone worthy of the mantle to step into Kunene's size fourteen leather shoes and provide the country with laments and odes. Kunene is he who Sandile Ngidi once in his tribute that, "Kunene is largely forgotten in South Africa - a country that too often reduces greatness to political heroes. Surely the toyi-toyi was not the only response in creative self-expression when we were oppressed?" Okay when he died, we suddenly remembered him even though we never named a street or a theatre after him. Maybe our guilt at having abandoned him post '94 will drive us to finally honour him.
Immediately after Kunene's passing a highly articulate poet and to the very end a servant of the South African literary community Professor Keorapetse Kgositsile stepped in the suddenly vacant shoes. I still need to ask him if he's really size fourteen or whether he experiences regular blisters, even though some of the brilliant verses I have come across attributed to him suggests he's got a bigger footprint, figuratively.
But now in the spirit of a revived South African literary landscape there's another need for an understudy to this advisor to the Minister of Arts and Culture Dr Pallo Jordan. Someone who will immediately take over in the event of the good prof deciding to pass the buck - in his lifetime. Kasiekulture presents the most prolific Sepedi poet and performer to ever grace God's green earth - David wa Maahlamela as that understudy. Actually, I think I can get away with labeling Maahlamela a young man - he's still just 23-years-old. His artistic excellence has been tested in many publications, amongst one of them University of Limpopo's Dramatist in Residence Prof John Ruganda edited publication Turfwrite. Maahlamela's deep Sepedi poetry has seen him awarded many accolades, amongst them African Heritage Arts & Cultural Festival (2001 - 2003) Award, Musina Mayoral Excellence Award for Poetry (2005) and that famed International Society of Poets Outstanding Achiever Award (2005). And he's just 23 years old - let's remember that as we move along.
There's so much to write about gems that make a mockery of the Kimberely Process because they are just too good nobody cares if they are blood diamonds or not. Even if he was born in Liberia under despot Charles Taylor or restless Ivory Coast you can bet your last dime this rough jewel would have made it to any part of the world, adorned the fingers of Queens and remained down to earth. Maahlamela, who incidentally works for De Beers is just that. I'm going to write so much about him because it's not everyday that the local media (which is so obsessed with everything Beckham or Diddy does) interrogates rural-based voices like Maahlamela. His poetry has also appeared in the Polokwane based Timbila Poetry Project annual anthology TIMBILA. Here he largely muses in English and Sepedi.
His role model is undoubtedly mad-bard Lesego Rampolokeng after Nelson Mandela. Few poets are ever vocal about their adoration for the old with some calling him 'a blunder/ leading the nation asunder' but Maahlamela even put Mandela on the cover of his book. He wrote these intriguing lines about and for Rampolokeng. 'To the rhyme master - once in a while lesego/ let's write plastic poetry/ that melts when we near the fire/ let's praise corrupt politicians/ and ululate when they fart'. This thought-provoking (especially in the context of South Africa where politicians are as corrupt as Mobutu Sese-Seko to the point that their demonic greed froze the National Lottery) was published in Kobus Moolman edited FIDELITIES. His poetry has also graced the hallowed pages of Botsotso, New Coin, Carapace, Kotaz and Echoes. But all these overdue successes in getting his poetry published in various anthologies targetting various readerships is not the main point behind this review.
And the point is also not to market Maahlamela as a poet laureate-in-waiting, which he is. The point is simple; Maahlamela surprised many by finally releasing his first Sepedi poetry collection titled Moswarataukamariri (Timbila) (loosely translated it means 'He who grasps a lion by its brow'). It was surprising because young men his age are still obsessed with Ebonics much to the detriment of their own mother tongue.
To express his level of self-esteem Maahlamela is brave to write, 'dingwe di retwa di bowa mokatong. Ge e le nna ke retwa ke sa ya' (Others are praised when they return from a race. Me, I receive accolades before I race). Further on the poem says, 'gobane ke mofenyi, maila go fenywa' (because I'm a victor, allergic to defeat). Now, let's not take things at face value but put this to the test.
As told to you earlier Maahlamela is only 23-years-old but his poetry has already taken him to Washington DC, he has performed infront of Arts Minister Jordan and the best writers this country can offer at the inaugural South African Writers Award and has recently finished his first English poetry manuscript which is now ready for publication. Moswarataukamariri, which was edited by legendary Sepedi playwright Alleta Motimele and Lerole Mamabolo is made up of more than 50 beautiful poems. The one that I found outstanding due to its depth is Ka Lehu Laka (In the event of my Demise) which is praise singing/ tragedy/ comedy and dry humour at its best. If anybody thought indigenous languages can't make William Shakespeare look dull try getting someone to translate Ka Lehu Laka for you. I challenge and promise you cash if you can get anyone to successfully do that - it's so rich it's just untranslatable (for lack of a fancy word).
After all is said and done, and like I said I can only write so much about altruistic souls who deserve own chapters in the Encyclopaedia of South African Poetry, Maahlamela, like Kgositsile and the late Kunene deserve a mention - if not biographies. Instead of government stressing about renaming landmarks after only struggle heroes, let us remember what Ngidi said, "Surely the toyi-toyi was not the only response in creative self-expression when we were oppressed?" Maahlamela deserves a statue and a plague, anywhere but Newtown, where people will ask relevant questions about him - the next poet laureate.
* Maahlamela's new English poetry will be featured in the upcoming Green Dragon # 5 (Dye Hard Press)
* He will also be featured in the popular SABC 1 Thursday night 18h30 series Voices of Africa (Media Peace Centre)
* For other titles from Timbila Poetry Project visit their website.

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